Release Date: 08.20.02
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
Laughin' Just to Keep from Cryin'
by: matt cibula
Blues music helped to knit together African-American culture for the millions who left the deep south and headed for the industrial north; at least that's the claim made by the liner notes here. The best evidence for this? The 25 songs on this CD. From the "welcome to the city" blues of Sam Theard's title track all the way through to Lonnie Johnson's "He's a Jelly Roll Baker," this music rocks and rolls it Windy City style for more than an hour and a quarter, and provides as good a picture of the opportunity and excitement and dangers of black Chicago in the 1930s and early 1940s as you're ever going to hear.
All but one of these tracks were recorded in Chicago or Aurora (Joe Pullum's hilarious "Black Gal, What Makes Your Head So Hard?" was taped in San Antonio), and they really capture the bluster and toughness of that emerging culture. Check out Pete Wheatstraw's theme song, "Peetie Wheatstraw," and learn where Robert Johnson got all his ideas: "And will you please tell them that little Peetie Wheatstraw / Well now he have been here and gone." Hear "Devil's Island Gin Blues" to learn how Roosevelt Sykes and just about everyone else felt about the repeal of Prohibition ("I been drunk once tonight and I wanna get drunk again"). And check out what is perhaps The Archetypal Blues Song, St. Louis Jimmy's "Going Down Slow," which (as the notes point out) has been covered by everyone from Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf to, um, Huey Lewis. This is old Chicago boiled down to three-minute segments, and it's great stuff.
A lot of these songs go pretty damned deep into the well of emotion. With recording technology as advanced as it was, artists had more time to perfect their tunes, their lyrics, and their vocal approaches, and this disc shows that off to glorious effect. The well-known "Trouble in Mind" appears here in its original version by Richard M. Jones, a man who has vanished into music history—but the evidence is strong here that he is one of the great underestimated blues singers of all time. The way he nails his all-star line "And when you see me laughin', baby / I'm-in-a keep from cryin' " is inspirational, full of heart and guts and what was later known as soul. You won't believe the way Merline Johnson (also known as "Yas Yas Girl") attacks her lines on "He Roars Like a Lion," but with lines like "He roars like a lion / And he hops like a kangaroo / And if I get that man back / I don't know what I'll do" even I could do okay.
You also get some extra-creepy bonuses here. The harmonica-fueled original take on "Good Morning School Girl" shows Sonny Boy Williamson to be the clear leader in the category of "Statutory Rapist Stalkers in Music History." We get salacious versions of "Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (references to prostitution on 31st Street) and "Selling My Pork Chops" (well, just think about it: she's selling her damned <I>pork chops</I>), and the aforementioned "He's a Jelly Roll Baker" is just, y'know, sleazy and funny and perfect.
The single most shocking track on any of these discs is contained here, too: Tommy McClennan's "Bottle It Up and Go" is raucous and sloppy and macho, and breaks into a suggestive scat break at the end, but that's not what will drop your jaw. No, that will come when you hear McClennan drop the N-bomb a couple of times. This just sounds so wrong (and right in a certain super-guilty way)…but it sounded wrong back in the 40s, too—McClennan was apparently chased out of a window for this transgression. To me, the worse offense is when he makes a plucked chicken sound sexually attractive. Now that's nasty.
Oh, you need this disc to remind you how the blues used to flirt with the boundaries while still remaining great hummable pop music. I just wish that the actual Chicago Blues Festival had anything like this instead of a tide of sweaty drunken shirtless guys from the suburbs listening to other sweaty drunken shirtless guys from the suburbs. 18-Sep-2002 7:45 PM